W is for Watership Down

I’m about twelve and in an English lesson at school. My favourite lesson in fact, one where we just sat for the entire hour reading whatever book we were reading at the time. I loved reading at the time and still do, although I have to admit that my reading was mostly quite one track, namely endless Target novelisations of Doctor Who stories, to the continuing despair of my English teacher. ‘At least you are reading something’ was the best he could offer in my defence. But this week was different. In my hands was a hardback book from the Local Library. It had a cover that was not the most exciting thing in the world; it was just a photograph of some rabbits sitting in a sun kissed field (actually highly inappropriate in many ways for this book). The book was by Richard Adams and was of course ‘Watership Down’.

Now this was not the first time I had read this book – it was maybe the tenth or eleventh time since I had picked it up for the first time at the age of about eight. I have no idea why I came to read it – it was not one of the books my parents knew anything about – maybe I heard about from someone at school. I don’t know. All I did know is that I fell in love with it straight away and it is still my favourite book (if you pushed me – ‘Good Omens’ by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is close behind and as an aside I cannot wait for the BBC TV adaptation, albeit with a tiny amount of trepidation – but only tiny as Gaiman is so involved in it, surely they cannot screw it up?). Nevertheless, my English teacher was delighted that I was now reading a ‘proper’ book. He was less enamoured when I decided to reread it a few further times that year, but in the final reckoning, I refer you to the ’at least he’s reading’ sentiment once more.

Of the thousands of books that I have read, why should this book still have such a resonance with me? Good question. Partly it is the time I first experienced a fully nuanced novel that even as a child I could see worked on different levels (for some of the people I know this might be books by Tolkien, C. S. Lewis or Mervyn Peake). I was always someone I would describe as a naturalist at heart so anything about animals is going to be well received at least at the outset, but this was probably an entry point and nothing more. Looking back today though, I think it gave me the kind of story I like the most, an interesting ensemble cast of characters that, in this case, just happen to be rabbits. As a child, my favourite character was Blackberry – the bright one, basically – but I found them all well drawn and ‘real’. Add on top of that a simple but well thought out rabbit culture, language and mythology (danger: Allegory alert) and I was sold.

But it is Hazel that is the centre of the book. If you want an example of what the ideal leader looks like it is arguably the central character. On the surface he appears only average, but in reality, he is the reason for anything good that happens; he listens to others, he learns what everyone’s skills are and then uses them; he doesn’t look down on anyone, even a humble mouse (and I will not spoil the story to say how crucial that attitude turns out to be). And, when it needs to be, he is heroic and prepared to die for his people (particularly when he confronts the main antagonist near the end). If I had to aspire to be a character in a book – this is who I would want to be.

Please read this book if you never have; do not be biased by the 1980s animated version, which has it charms but is fatally flawed in my opinion – mostly because you lose the complexity of the characters. Some of you will fall in love, I’m sure.


V is for Very Lucky

It was something of a respite for us at the weekend to have a long weekend in Hampshire on our own, in lush, gorgeous arable countryside with perhaps more than our fair share of sun. It was beautiful walking weather – bright, sunny but not too hot – and the area we were in, sandwiched between Ringwood and Salisbury, was full of interest, historical and natural. As I have commented before, when we walk the Lovely Wife and I also do quite a lot of talk and as this increasingly weird and complicated year continues to surprise there is always plenty to talk about, even when not discussing the sights we see along the way.

One ritual is the review of the day, for both where we went, what we saw and what surprised and delighted. Sunday was a particular pleasure, kicked off with a Roman villa and graduating via two Saxon churches, a hill fort and a medieval turf labyrinth which more than satisfied my history needs. But as is often the case it is the smaller, often wildlife moments that stick in the mind. The huge Devil’s Coachman Beetle on the path as we climbed out of Rockbourne, or the slow worm sunning itself on the footbath up to that village’s church. Or perhaps the two Brown Hares having a face off in one of the fields we passed later in the day, largely oblivious to us in the midst of whatever dispute they were mutually engaged with.

We needed the respite. I go back up to see my father again later this week, he continues to hang on in there although is becoming increasingly tired. I have been very blessed though with having the opportunity to spend so much time with him these last six months and we have had plenty of time to talk and say what we need to say to each other, something many people do not have the luxury of. My main worry for him now is to stop him getting bored, although cheeky exchanges with some of the Nursing Home staff (some of whom are very colourful in their own right), a supply of sweets and endless editions of NCIS and its various spinoffs on the TV seem to be keeping him pretty happy – if a little confused, as watching through the day across different channels does mean that there is no continuity of characters. But, hey, it’s just fairly entertaining hokum and taken in that sense it does not make a vast amount of difference if you are seeing it in the right order or not.

No one knows how long this will last and I have now learned not to really think about it too much. I cannot affect what will happen, so we will concentrate on what we can effect, being there for him as much as we can considering the other plates we need to spin for us and for friends and family. The support from everyone has been wonderful; and I have to also say that my work – I work for Procter & Gamble – have been hugely supportive, and I am constantly aware that with a less flexible and understanding employer this whole period would be much less tolerable. So we soldier on, and take each week as it comes.

U is for ‘Upstairs”

My Dad can be a funny old sausage sometimes. In the twilight of his time with us he has continued a lifelong ability to make me laugh, intentionally and otherwise. On one side, when we see him now in his nursing home it is nice to see him enjoying an ongoing banter with the carers and laundry/cleaning ladies; several of them drop in for a chat as unlike many of his fellow inmates he is still interested and able to make conversation. Unintentionally though, he does come up with some classics.

One of these is the mysterious conspiracy of ‘them upstairs’. My Dad’s explanation for any perceived delay in anyone coming to tend to him after he has pressed his ‘attention’ button –  never far from his hands now that he has realised what it is really for – is down to the machinations of the mysterious cabal that rules the ‘upstairs’ (cue pointing upstairs as one might to heaven). Apparently these mysterious masters control the poor workers (the carers) and therefore responsible for any delay in service. I think it is fair to say we have still managed to keep a straight face most of the time at these conspiratorial revelations, but sometimes we struggle. It is utter nonsense of course. He is referring to the nurses who are based on both levels of the home (in fact, as my Dad has not been outside his room, he has not realised that the ground floor nurse’s station is just outside his own room. The response times for assistance I have seen – and I’ve been in enough over the last few months to judge – are pretty fast and effective, and my Dad has nothing to complain about. It is mainly because he has no real sense of time these days, and he does not really understand the division of labour between the care staff and the medical staff, and conspiracy thrives in an environment where there is limited information or rife misunderstanding.

Conspiracy theories, or more broadly, the ability to believe things in the presence of hard facts to the contrary never cease to amaze me. Now let me be clear what I mean here. I’m talking about empirical, simple questions. Is the Earth flat? Did the moon landings happen? Does the Loch Ness Monster exist? That kind of stuff (In my opinion, no, yes and yes – everyone knows since the 1970s that Nessie is a Zygon bred cybernetic hybrid, duh). It is entirely clear to me how people can believe in higher powers or ghosts or in ‘alternative medicine’ as the history of human existence in my opinion is defined by an overreaching fact that there is more to the world then we think; that’s also the joy of science as it rarely proves to be as simple as we first thought. I like to keep an open mind because I find life is a lot more fun that way.

But on something that is sitting in front of you screaming its reality and to still not see it; that I struggle with. I guess the simple truth is that we are as a species excellent at deciding to not see the things that upset our world view. If pressure is applied to that world view then we surround ourselves with others that share that view as a defence and reinforcement – if you had been looking at my Twitter feed in June 2016 you would have gone to bed, as I did, feeling confident that common sense would prevail over the EU referendum. Which just goes to show I am as guilty as anyone else in not seeing a reality I would rather not see.

T is for Taking Action

Or not. There is an adage that bad things happen when good people stand by and do nothing. Despite being an old romantic who grew up, and indeed still love, stories of men and women who would risk all to do The Right Thing, I constantly disappoint myself by not living up to that image. Time and again, and I’ve noticed that the more I think about it, the more I notice it (not surprising really), I feel I have let myself down by not speaking up and pointing out something that just isn’t right. Then again, on reflection sometimes I wonder what the Right Thing was. I’ll give examples.

I was walking past the church I have been attending in the North, where the graveyard has been planted with hundreds of daffodils. It’s very pretty and the last few days of sun have brought them all out in flower. Coming back up the hill from seeing my Dad in his nursing home I noticed ahead of me four or five kids, likely in their early teens, in what seems the regulation clothing of kids where I grew up at this point in time, i.e. track pants and hoodie for the boys, leggings and something shapeless for the girls. They were engaged in a wanton act of flower vandalism involving yanking up daffodils and using them as impromptu swords to engage in mortal combat across the road (showing little regard for the traffic but for some reason up my old neck of the woods someone has surgically removed any road sense from all of the kids and most of the adults). As I came up the hill towards the miscreants I was all ready to give them a telling off, but by the time I had reached them they had stopped and now sat chatting (amongst the evidence of their vandalism). I didn’t say anything, but just walked past. A glance back later showed that the game had not resumed.

I wondered at the time if I should have said something, but actually I’m glad I didn’t. For one, I did not need to, my presence was why they stopped, they knew what they were doing was wrong. Secondly, I know what it is like to grow up in an ex mining village in County Durham – very, very boring. So I kind of understand the need to find any source of entertainment. And finally, their de flowering had absolutely no impact on the glory of the overall display. So I will let myself off that one.

However, a few days later I was guilty of inaction. On a brief sojourn South the Lovely Wife and I were enjoying one of our strolls. As we neared home, a young couple in their 20s walked past us deep in conversation. This is not a problem. What was a problem was the young man casually throwing his cigarette packet on the ground and walking on as though this was the most natural thing in the world (well, I guess unfortunately for him that is the case). I should have said something. I should have, at the very least, picked up and disposed of the litter myself. But I didn’t. I looked away and tried to forget. Which, as I am writing this several days later, I have obviously failed to do.

I do not know why I did not say anything. It is not as though I am easily intimidated by someone little more than a boy, and by now the amount of grey in my beard should remind me that I should be getting to that stage of life where speaking your mind becomes mostly automatic. But for some reason I said nothing and missed a chance to perhaps change someone’s behaviour long term – if I am guilty of anything I feel that was my error. Next time, I’ll do better.

S is for Silence (or lack of)

Anyone who knows me well will testify that quiet is something I do not do well. For many years I was cursed at any kind of work off site trainings – they do not do them that often now, which I have mixed feelings about – where part of the schedule would be ‘break out’ small groups that, huddled around a flipchart, would try and answer some obtuse challenge in too short a time period. This exercise in futility was itself not a problem. The issue is the truly painful exercise of each group having to summarise its findings back to the plenary. For this, a spokesperson would be needed. Everyone in each small group would steadfastly not look at the other group members when the momentous decision to choose the sacrificial goat was required. Each person hoping that someone else would volunteer. Each person playing a kind of game of chicken where the first person to break the silence would end up having to make up something for the rest of the small group that made everyone sound intelligent and/or achieved something in the exercise.

I’m not good at this form of chicken. I cannot cope with silence for very long. It is not, as I suspect some people think, that I like the sound of my own voice or even that I think I have something vital to say. It is just I get exponentially uncomfortable after someone has asked a question and no one responds. I need to fill that gap if someone has not filled it already. I need there to be noise.

This manifests at home in a very obvious way. The Lovely Wife jokes that it is quite clear when I am in the house and when I am not. The first thing I do when I come in is to turn on the radio, or if it is that rare time of day when the only programs are one that make my teeth grind, then put some music on instead. If I go out and the Lovely Wife is in, the radio will be off again within minutes of me exiting stage left (rarely pursued by a bear). If I am working, music in the background helps me concentrate. I think if it is silent, I have a tendency to focus on the silence, in the same way nothing fills my imagination than the darkness. I become obsessed with the silence, why is it quiet? Something must be wrong. Whereas, if someone is burbling on gently in the background it is clear that the world has not, in fact, ended and I can get on with what I am doing. For the Lovely Wife it is the opposite. We accept this, and we make it work by the use of lowered volume and closing of doors at relevant times.

Why I need noise is a something we have discussed at times. Partly it is an extrovert/introvert thing but there is also something about what you have become used to. My upbringing was in a house where the TV was always on; often in two different rooms, and if the TV was off it would be radio or vinyl or cassette player. The only time the house was ever quiet was when no one was home. In all my years as a student and as a single man, the one reassurance I could count on was music, and so it was never really quiet for long (I needed lots of reassurance in those days). I can appreciate silence and why for many this can bring rest and relaxation. However, it is not for me, so sorry but I am about to turn the volume up – I need to think.

R is for Rambling

The Lovely Wife and I love walking. It has been commented on in our home town that we are seen out and about more than might be considered average. To be frank, if we have an hour or two to fill, footwear will be donned and we will take a turn around wherever we are at the time, even if it is the same circuit of up into town, down and around the park and back again – a three-mile circuit that never really gets boring. I know that may sound odd, but the very frequency of doing the same walk becomes its making; you see the differences through the seasons, for example, much more clearly – know when the kingfisher is likely to appear on the river, and later when it is not worth looking for it anymore as it has now moved upstream to breed, for example. The changing views of the town as the flowers and trees put on growth, change colour and fade away to the starkness of winter produces different vistas, and after a while, year after year, you can also begin to compare – last year the ducklings were early, this year, after the cold snaps, we are still waiting. Walking a course in the sun means other people and therefore the ability to people watch; properly equipped in the rain and it is peace and solitude with only us and a few hardy runners and dog walkers.

All relationships are different but we have found that rambling about together to be a good thing for how we relate. Aside from any fitness benefit to our weary limbs, mentally even the soggiest wander generally lifts both our spirits and helps sort out some of the tensions that inevitably build up. We talk more while walking than probably any other time – the world around us always throws up new things to talk about, so the conversation will never run dry when we can eb speculating on whether we will see little grebes on the lake today, or whether the Man In The Red Waterproof will be feeding the geese as he is oft to do. We do not take big decisions while walking – those are best done for us in the pub, and I kid you not on that – but we might have laid the framework for those decisions while engaged in an extended walk to the pub in question.

Ah, and there’s one of the other delights, rambling the same route across and round your home town, a walk that, oh, there is a surprise, might just end up in your local hostelry for a cheeky one before going home. Call it an incentive to exercise if you like, but it is a fine pleasure and as we are such regular walkers the right pub is a good pseudo home. Although it is fair to say that in the winter weekend walks to the pub do mean getting their early enough to raise the eyebrow of the Landlord; but if you want to walk in daylight, that means early and therefore and early liaison with the desired pint of the day and possibly some pork scratchings. And then, home, for a well-deserved sit down and the satisfaction of a fitness tracker interface adorned with the happy green indicating that today’s targets had been reached, nay, perhaps overachieved. It’s making me smile while writing. At the moment, life is throwing enough things at us that the things that can lighten the mood are to be cherished.

Q is for Queen

The late, great Kirsty MacColl insisted that there was a guy down the chip shop who swore he was Elvis. I am not sure about that, but I recently have discovered that the late Freddie Mercury is alive and well and working as a waiter in a St Albans restaurant. Well, there is a member of the waiting staff at this establishment who has, in my mind, more than a passing resemblance of the great Queen front man; and once you decide that he’s ‘Freddie’ then it is very hard to back away from that thought.

I have a very dear friend to blame for my love of Queen. A copy of ‘Queen’s Greatest Hits’ recorded onto a cheap AGFA C90 cassette was the first piece of music that came into my hands that was not related to my parents record collection. It was a revelation, and I played it to death. It did have the quirks that many people had with the recordings they had in the days before digital, where jumps in the vinyl gave you unplanned remixes of songs never intended by the artist concerned. In the case of this tape the issues were that the album did not quite fit – it was some time before I actually heard the end of ‘Save Me’ for instance, as it was rudely truncated. Also, while the album was obviously stereo, my friend’s midi system was only operating on mono and had recorded as such onto the tape. For most of the tracks that did not matter; for those of you who know ‘Bicycle Race’ will realise this rather impacts the song in the middle section as the stereo bell ringing was reduced to one bell and an uncomfortable series of silences. It has never been one of my favourite songs.

Not long afterwards came Live Aid and my love of the band was cemented when they stole the show, although my initial experience of that performance was listening to a radio in the back of the car on the way to a summer holiday in Dunbar with the sort of inconsistent signal you felt was deliberately trying to annoy you by dropping off at the most inopportune moments.

The Lovely Wife and I have been lucky to go to many gigs over the years, separately and obviously together in more recent years but the one regret I do have is that I never got to see Queen live. It was never really going to happen, to be fair to me, as they stopped playing live in 1986 when I was in my mid-teens, and I would never been able to afford tickets anyway. Like most fans I was distraught when Freddie died of AIDS in 1991 when I was at University, and the tribute concert (aside from the oddest thing in the world, David Bowie reciting the Lord’s Prayer on stage – where did that come from?) only served to show how few vocalists could really get Freddie’s range (honourable exceptions being the late George Michael and the marvellous Annie Lennox).

Queen were never ‘cool’ and liking their music never will be. But that was OK for me as a teenager as I was not in any way cool or trendy. That is the joy of music; you can own it and take joy and support from it, and even more so now you can be listening to whatever you want without anyone else knowing, providing you keep your iPhone screen hidden from view. Or, wear the T shirt with pride. Some music is to listen too, some is fuel for your soul.